Some of what I see in the north country as I look ahead to the 2015-2016 season in the U.S. Premier Hockey League and the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League:
Properly promoted, there is potential to create rousing rivalries among three northern Michigan towns that will house teams in the U.S. Premier Hockey League.
Located within a two-hour drive of one another, the Alpena Flyers, Kalkaska Rhinos and Traverse City Hounds are part of a re-branded USPHL that also includes the nearby Soo Firehawks.
But in a town that features the Soo Eagles of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League, the Firehawks face a formidable task in attracting high-end players.
If it comes to a survival-of-the-fittest showdown between the Eagles and the Firehawks, it should be no contest. That is, the Eagles are better supported, better funded and better managed than the Firehawks.
And if the truth hurts some, so be it.
As for the USPHL in Alpena, Kalkaska and Traverse City, they are three programs of good repute — with the Flyers as the epitome of a community-owned franchise.
Previously home to rag-tag junior franchises with little positive identity, Alpena has credibility with the Flyers and their reputable general manager, David Guzman.
With three new teams to reach an historical pinnacle of 12, the NOJHL has returned to former roots in the Michigan Soo and Espanola and ventured into French River.
And via relocation, the NOJHL again has a presence in Rayside-Balfour and Timmins, which only adds to the optimism that has occurred on the watch of commissioner Robert Mazzuca, who has a knack for thinking ahead.
With the demise of the one-and-done Canadian International Hockey League — which seemed like a good idea at the same — the NOJHL has market control on a region that extends from Sault Ste. Marie in the west to Kirkland Lake in the east.
So what lies ahead for the NOJHL in 2015-2016?
Eleven teams have sights set on knocking the reigning champion Soo Thunderbirds from their lofty perch, including the cross-border Eagles, who are back where they belong after three seasons in the North American Hockey League.
Teams to watch include the Powassan Voodoos, a second-year entry that has had a productive off-season courtesy a supportive ownership group and a low-key, albeit high-performance general manager in Chris Dawson.
Another team on the rise — actually it has nowhere to go but up — is the Blind River Beavers, with a new president directing a new executive. Also new to the Beavers and Blind River is coach-general manager Brad Barton, who was lured away from the Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
Blind River went winless in 56 games in 2014-2015 with but a single point from an overtime setback — against the champion Thunderbirds, of all teams — to show for its efforts.
But Barton has already bolstered the Beavers with a number of off-season acquisitions and the outlook in Blind River has become brighter.
Standings aside, a race to embrace might be on the attendance chart.
Iroquois Falls led the NOJHL in attendance in 2014-2015 followed closely by Elliot Lake and Cochrane.
But before it left for the CIHL in 2014-2015, Espanola led the NOJHL in attendance in 2013-2014.
And over in the Michigan Soo, the Eagles averaged more than 500 fans per game while in the NAHL with numbers that would put them at or near the top of the NOJHL.